Managing the gap between curriculum based and problem based learning: Deployment of multiple learning strategies in design and delivery of online courses in computer science – Bygholm & Buus, 2009
Thus far in my teaching career I have been running my computer science courses on a blended model. Often I can piece together what I’m looking for with a couple different programs and some choice collaborative “unplugged” activities. I’m constantly poking around the internet for new curriculum, but generally they all have similar patterns: direct instruction through video/slides and then individual practice. The more self-contained the course is online the more likely it is to follow this pattern. Looking for the “why” wasn’t going to be particularly productive, so I broadened my search. For this article review, I sought out studies about online computer science curriculum and some of their potential structures.
The article that caught my eye was “Managing the gap between curriculum based and problem based learning: Deployment of multiple learning strategies in design and delivery of online courses in computer science,” which is a bit of a mouthful if you ask me. Between 2004-2006, 40 online computer science courses were jointly developed and delivered by the University of Strathcylde Scotland and Aalborg University in Denmark. The article was written by the researchers from Aalborg University, who prior to starting the project had a considerable investment in problem based learning and discussed it in detail in the article. They defined problem based learning as “aimed at providing the student with abilities to acquire knowledge appropriate to solve problems within the domain. Focus is on learner experience, participant control, learner self-management and guidance” (Bygholm & Buus, 2009, p.13). In fact, their whole university is so passionate about problem based learning that they have a variation of it called “The Aalborg PBL model” that uses problems as the starting point for learning with curriculum assigned as needed to solve the problem or is related to the theme (Figure 1) (Bygholm & Buus, 2009, p.17). They eventually decided that their personal version of problem based learning was too “radical” for their more traditional, curriculum based partners over in Scotland, and that used alone it failed to support the project’s need to reach stated learning objectives (Bygholm & Buus, 2009, p.19).
The partners at Aalborg University had a clear prerogative to get more problem based learning into the online computer science courses. The problem, of course, is that those at the University of Strathcylde were more inclined to instructor led, curriculum focused learning. I’m not sure why they decided that they were a good match for each other in this project, but there you go. The two school were speaking different learning languages and their project ended up being a learning model creole. Their eventual compromise supported both learning strategies by providing opportunity for students to organize their own learning around specific problems within a set module and also be exposed to content through more direct teaching (Figure 2).
Within the article there is a brief discussion on the varying definitions of success between the curriculum based and problem based models. This was an issue I hadn’t previously considered. It’s easy to look at the activities used in each model and spot the differences, but it’s a little harder to process that they have entirely different overall learning goals. Success in the curriculum based model involves a “specified quantification in certain methods and techniques” (Bygholm & Buus, 2009, p.18). It is about absorbing a wide-breadth of content knowledge, generally through teacher-led instruction. Alternatively, success in problem based learning takes the form of “competencies to solve problems within the [content] area, independent of specific curriculum bites” (Bygholm & Buus, 2009, p.18). Their co-designed learning strategy and included activities seek success from both models by passing control between the teacher and student and providing opportunity for both direct content delivery and hands-on practice. Students would be both exposed to a breadth of necessary content knowledge and learn how to problem solve within the domain. Overall, I think the model they developed together is well constructed, especially for computer science where even at lower levels it can have a lot of content-specific knowledge before you can start building, creating, and solving. The courses I come across online may have a creative aspect so that students are developing their own projects under certain restrictions, but in general we severely lack the collaborative/group component and extended student-led learning.
I also didn’t realize how political course development could be. Not only do individual people have their chosen learning strategies, but entire universities may ascribe to a particular model and want to push that agenda. Even in an article about finding the learning model middle ground, there was clearly a lot of stubbornness during the process, and the authors often came across as smug about their school’s personal use of one model of the other. I guess I hadn’t thought of it as a competition? Maybe I should be less surprised about the repetitive online course structures, clearly it takes a lot to get educators on the same page, or to even mix models outside of their comfort zones.